Helping Your Teen Through Their First Breakup
It’s still probably your most vivid memory, your first love. The butterflies in your stomach, your first kiss, the heart-wrenching, tear-filled breakup. You survived, and so will your teen. With time, your son or daughter will be ready to explore other relationships.
“One of the most difficult parts of a relationship is breaking up. It doesn’t matter if you are 16 or 61 years old, it is painful,” says Mary Jo Rapini, Med, LPC, psychotherapist, and author of How to Survive a Break-Up and Love Again. But, as a parent, there are things you can do (and shouldn’t do) to help your teen navigate these feelings.
"Do validate your child’s feelings. What your teen really needs is for you to validate the feeling," says Susan Kuczmarski, author of Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go. “Validation requires a parent to do the following three things: listen and try to understand the feeling; acknowledge that it exists—mirroring it back, if necessary; and finally accept rather than try to alter it. Do this as much as you can, as often as you can,” she advises. “Validation sounds something like this: ‘I understand why you're upset about your break-up,’ or ‘It's OK to feel the way you do about it. You've spent a lot of time with him.’”
Do know how powerful your teen’s emotions are. Adolescents are blown over by the power of first love, says Kuczmarski. "While it sounds simple, parents of teens can be guided by the knowledge that love is powerful. It can explain a teen's behavior when nothing else does. Romantic love is so all-consuming that a teen may think she has to set aside her love for family because she doesn't have enough love for both. Parents and siblings can feel this exclusion.”
Do create an open dialogue. Kuczmarski suggests being open with your teen when talking about love, passion, sex, and relationships. Keep topics surfacing—frequently, lightly, and with openness. “You'll find that your teen needs these conversations,” she explains. “They're on his or her mind now, and it's likely that not too many adults initiate discussion. Be sure to share your own ideas and views on love, relationships, marriage—and even passion—with your teen.”
Don’t ignore signs of distress. “If sadness, anxiety, crying, or [loss of appetite] goes on longer than two weeks, it isn't a stage, it’s a problem,” says Rapini. She explains that most problems that bring kids to counseling were not serious when they first began, but had escalated with time.
“Many people are afraid of being vulnerable and talking to someone about the loss of a relationship. A professional can provide direction to your teen at a time when they feel overwhelmed and confused,” she says. “In fact, many times children do want help, but are afraid to ask.” She stresses to parents that they talk to their children and reassure them that a counselor will be helpful. Most children can talk to a counselor in regards to what they are feeling and how to better handle their concerns.
When a teen is upset, don't deny, rationalize, or try to "fix" the feeling, advises Kuscmarski. “Responses like ‘Don't be angry’ or ‘That shouldn't hurt’ or ‘Try not to be sad’ are so common that, at first, they sound correct. But this is far from true.”
Instead, as a rule of thumb, she says to try to allow your teen to express any emotion to you. Even if the emotions are messy. “If she has kept a lid on her feelings, she may have strong anger; she may be concerned that her boyfriend's friends will not like her,” she explains. Let her get it out. “When teens learn to verbalize their powerful, strong, even 'dangerous' emotions in safe, appropriate ways, they are less likely to feel compelled to act them out.”
Don’t fall into the gender trap. A common misconception is that fathers talk to sons and mothers to daughters. The thinking is that women are more emotional thinkers and men are more action-oriented. In this situation, a man may look for a solution while a mom may be a better listener. But, it’s an individual call, depending on the parent and child, says Rapini.
Don’t let your child go it alone. Always know where your teen is at all times and extend a safety net. Let your teen know if he or she ever gets in trouble, they can call, and you will be there for them.
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, author, therapist, and creator of the Soul Intention app, reviewed this article.
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, author, therapist, and creator of the Soul Intention app. Phone interview with author, September 2, 2015.
Susan Kazcmarski, Ed.D., author of Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go. Email message to author, September 3, 2015.
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